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March 13, 2009

Bruins to clash with Trojans

Game Ticker

With 30 Pac-10 championships and 11 NCAA tournament titles, UCLA is the most celebrated basketball program in the nation.

Crosstown rival Southern California does not have the same illustrious history.

The 15th-ranked Bruins look to improve their NCAA tournament seeding and mover closer to their second consecutive conference tournament title Friday when they play the Trojans, who are seeking a signature victory to bolster their NCAA chances.

UCLA (25-7) defeated Washington State 64-53 in Thursday's conference tournament quarterfinals for its fifth consecutive victory.

"The team felt great. Everybody was really in it," guard Darren Collison said. "When our intensity is at a high level, it's going to be real tough to beat us."

UCLA's suffocating defense is making it tough for opponents to score.

The Bruins held the Cougars to 30.0 percent shooting and are allowing an average of 62.8 points on 40.9 percent shooting during their winning streak. UCLA gave up an average of 79.0 points on 54.0 percent shooting in its previous four contests, losing three of them.

"We did a really good job defensively," Bruins coach Ben Howland said. "That's definitely one of our best defensive efforts in quite a while and that's what it takes to win in postseason play."

UCLA defeated USC 57-54 in the semifinals of last season's conference tournament before beating Stanford 67-64 in the title game.

The Bruins, who swept the two-game season series over their crosstown rival, have won four straight over the Trojans and nine of the last 11 meetings. USC, which has seven Pac-10 championships, has never won an NCAA title.

Collison led UCLA with 18 points and six assists in a 64-60 victory at USC on Jan. 11, but finished with just four points on 1-of-5 shooting in a 76-60 home win over the Trojans on Feb. 4.

Collision, who was named MVP of last season's conference tournament, led UCLA with 15 points Thursday and didn't seemed bothered by a bruised tailbone he suffered in the Bruins' 94-68 win over Oregon in Saturday's regular-season finale.

While UCLA is a virtual lock for the NCAAs, USC greatly enhanced its NCAA tournament chances with Thursday's 79-75 over third-seeded California in the quarterfinals. The Trojans nearly destroyed their NCAA tournament hopes by closing February with six losses in seven games, but they have won three straight since to stay alive.

"I don't know, I really don't," USC coach Tim Floyd replied when asked about the NCAA tournament. "Let's not forget that when we were healthy, we went to (No. 6) Oklahoma and lost by one.

"We're a pretty good sixth-place team. This is the first time we've been healthy since the Oklahoma game. We're a pretty good basketball team."

Taj Gibson led the Trojans with 21 points and 16 rebounds, while Daniel Hackett made four free throws in the last 3.8 seconds to seal the victory.

Gibson is averaging 18.6 points in his last five games - 4.0 better than his team-leading average - but didn't have much luck at UCLA five weeks ago, finishing with a season-low two points on 1-of-2 shooting.

Hackett had 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists Thursday, while freshman DeMar DeRozan added 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.

"We knew if we want to make the (NCAA) tournament we would have to win games," Hackett said.

USC has not been to the tournament title game since losing to Oregon in 2007.

The winner of this game plays either No. 13 Washington or 23rd-ranked Arizona State in the championship Saturday.



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